The Elusive Pimpernel
I've always listened to music as I write, usually music that relates in some way to the book I'm writing. But lately, I've been watching movies while I write. Yes, I know, it sounds odd. But I find that having a movie playing in the background frees up my mind so I don't obsess so much and can get the words down more freely. Of course this only works if I've thought the scene I'm writing through in advance. And as with music, I watch movies that relate to the book I'm writing, which helps me escape into the world of the book.
Lately, I've found myself watching various versions of The Scarlet Pimpernel a great deal, which is the inspiration for this post. Like Pride and Prejudice, The Scarlet Pimpernel has been a favorite of mine since I was a child, and like Pride and Prejudice I first encountered the story when my parents took me to a revival of a movie version–in this case, the Leslie Howard/Merle Oberon movie from the thirties. From the movie I went to the Baroness Orczy’s book and then to subsequent film adaptations (when the Anthony Andrews/Jane Seymour version first aired, I had a rehearsal and we didn’t have a VCR yet, so my mother tape-recorded it for me; I knew the dialogue to that version long before I finally got to see it). In college I was entranced to find copies of the later books in the Pimpernel series in the stacks of the Stanford Library (the Andrews/Seymour version is partly based on one of the sequels, Eldorado).
I saw the Broadway musical in New York when I was starting to write the book that is now Secrets of a Lady. It wasn’t until then that I quite realized how much The Scarlet Pimpernel had influenced me in devising my own story. Because what has always fascinated me about The Scarlet Pimpernel is its examination of a marriage that begins with deception, of the toll that deception takes, of the fear that one doesn’t know the truth about the person one loves most in the world, of the risk of trusting. (Nancy, my agent, talks eloquently about the power of the scene–which isn’t in any of the film adaptations I’ve seen–in which Percy, having maintained his impassive façade in front of Marguerite, kisses the steps where she’s walked after she’s left). Charles and Mélanie are very different people from Percy and Marguerite. The book's take on the French Revolution has a decidedly aristocratic slant, which hardly mirrors my own thoughts on that complex era (or those of Charles and Mélanie). But my fascination with The Scarlet Pimpernel’s portrait of a marriage definitely influenced me in creating Charles and Mel's story. Not to mention the appeal of intrigue and adventure and heroes who outwit their enemies through their own cleverness. The Pimpernel connection was what first drew me to Lauren's wonderful Pink Carnation books. I love the scene, cut from The Secret History of Pink Carnation but available on her website, in which Richard talks to Percy.
In the Baroness Orczy’s books and in the the 1934 Leslie Howard/Merle Oberon/Raymond Massey film, there is no suggestion of romantic involvement between Marguerite St. Just Blakeney (the French Republican actress turned aristocratic English wife) and Paul Chauvelin (an agent of the Committee of Public Safety). In the Anthony Andrews/Jane Seymour/Ian McKellen and Richard E. Grant/Elizabeth McGovern/Martin Shaw adaptations and in the Broadway musical, Marguerite and Chauvelin are former lovers. When I blogged about The Scarlet Pimpernel on my own website, I commented that I thought this added an interesting layer to the story. Sarah countered that “The triangle is a useful dramatic device, but the books present two more layered and interesting characters.” Which made me think about what adding an additional romantic element does to this story and to stories in general.
I’ll confess that the romantic in me tends to enjoy the addition of romantic complications. But romance can easily become motivational shorthand–”she did it because she loves him”, “he wants revenge because he can’t forgive her for leaving him”, etc… I don’t think this is quite the case in adaptations of The Scarlet Pimpernel that include the romantic triangle. In both film versions and in the musical, I had the sense that Marguerite had revolutionary principles apart from her love for Chauvelin and that her feelings for both Chauvelin and the Revolution changed as the Revolution took a darker turn. I had the sense that Chauvelin had loved Marguerite but that he was a zealous and ambitious revolutionary whose first loyalty was to what he saw as the aim of the Revolution. I never thought that jealousy over losing Marguerite was his primary motivation (though it does tinge his actions, which creates nice ambiguity; and in the Grant/McGovern/Shaw version, I love the way Percy knows he can play on Chauvelin’s feelings for Marguerite).
I also found myself thinking about the romantic triangle that figures prominently in Secrets of a Lady. At one point Mélanie says, “don’t you dare shrug off what I did as romantic infatuation. Call me whatever names you like, but at least credit me with the wit to make decisions for myself. Do you think I’d have run the risks I’ve run and blackened my soul simply for the love of a man?” Mélanie recognizes the risk of reducing complex motivations to “all for love”. And yet in the case of Secrets of a Lady, I think the romantic triangle enriches the story, perhaps in part because much of the time Mélanie, Charles, and Raoul are all acting against their romantic inclinations.
Is The Scarlet Pimpernel a favorite of yours? Did you find the book first or a film version? Do you prefer the story with the triangle or without? Can you think of other adaptations of books that have added a romantic element? Did it add to or detract from the story?